Shadowy groups contaminate legitimate issue debate

Coalitions and alliances are a classic strategy in responding to public issues. But shadowy front organisations with little or no legitimacy have no real place in effective issue management.

So when a little-known American organisation intervened last month to oppose an Australian Reserve Bank proposal to remove bank interchange fees on credit and debit card transactions, it raised some pretty obvious questions.

As the consumer rights body Choice asked:  Why would the International Alliance for Electronic Payments, based in the tiny town of Alpharetta, Georgia, be funding advertising against public policy in Australia. Visa and EFTPOS quickly distanced themselves from the strategy, before Mastercard admitted it “supported” the campaign, registered to a Sydney PR consultancy which lists Mastercard as one of its clients.

Now, financial institutions may have legitimate reasons for wanting to retain their fees. But you have to ask why would they use a foreign organisation to communicate their messages? And why would they think that was effective issue management? The American organisation is also reportedly behind the similar “My Card Matters” campaign in Europe.

Front groups are nothing new. Think no further than the 2010 Australian Federal election which saw television advertising from the newly-created Alliance of Australian Retailers to oppose plain packaging for cigarettes.  The organisation described itself as ‘Owners of Australian corner stores, milk bars, newsagents and service stations who are fed up with excessive regulation that is making it harder for us to run our businesses.’ However it was soon revealed that the alliance was, in fact, almost entirely funded by three of the world’s largest tobacco companies.

Then there was the notorious campaign in Australia and New Zealand a few years ago against the introduction of plastic milk bottles, driven by Mothers Against Pollution and their ubiquitous spokesperson Alana Maloney. The organisation described itself as “Australia’s largest environmental group” but was eventually exposed as a one-woman campaign run by a Brisbane-based PR consultant with a different name whose work was funded by manufacturers of cardboard milk cartons.

There are two key problems with front organisations for managing issues. Firstly, they are not very effective in the long term. Standardised plain packaging for cigarettes became law in Australia in December 2012 and plastic milk bottle are now an established product.

Secondly, they seldom remain secret forever. Like when shopping centre giant Westfield was exposed in the late 1990s for organising fake community associations opposed to competing shopping developments.

Or more recently, an American organisation calling itself Citizens for Fire Safety which lobbied between 2007 and 2012 against regulations restricting the use of toxic fire retardants. It claimed to represent ‘a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centres, doctors and industry leaders’ but was disbanded after it was revealed it was actually funded by three flame retardant manufacturers.  At the time, the main industry body, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), denied any involvement with the discredited organisation. But in May this year the former Executive Director of Citizens for Fire Safety revealed that the ACC helped create the phoney group and oversaw its lobbying (which predictably ACC continue to deny).

It’s hard to understand that people still think fake “citizens organisations” are a valid strategy, and any issue manager who favours creating a phoney front group really should think again.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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